2014 Phillies Report Card: Jerome Williams
Jerome Williams is a man-shaped lump of pitcher. He’s a former 1999 sandwich-round pick of the San Francisco Giants, and he reached the majors very quickly for a high school draftee, and ever since then he’s bounced from team to team, willing to an honest inning’s work for an honest inning’s pay. He’s played in nine major league seasons for seven major league teams over 12 years, almost always out of the rotation. Only once has he qualified for an ERA title, though that’s not because he’s always hurt–it’s because he’s not all that good.
Pitch f/x credits Williams with throwing six different kinds of pitch in 2014, including a meh fastball at about 90 mph, which he uses in concert with an okay cutter, an unremarkable changeup, a mediocre sinker and a couple different flavors of mediocre breaking ball. So far, that’s yielded just short of 900 innings that show him to be a competent, but below-average major league pitcher.
Williams keeps getting jobs because everyone knows that if you’ll sign him, he’ll come in and give you five or six innings without killing you. Plus he seems like a nice enough dude, and he wears a pink glove on the mound in memory of his late mother, who died of breast cancer. If all you need is a stopgap, you know Williams will come in and not be a total dick. In fact, when he was with the Giants, Williams let pitching coach Dave Righetti call him “Jeremy” for TWO YEARS rather than correct him.
(DIGRESSION: That’s a fascinating social situation–people mispronounce my last name all the time, and I hardly ever correct them, because my primary assumption about every person I meet for the first time is that I’ll never see him or her again, and I can live with people getting my name wrong if it means I can avoid that embarrassed look people get when they get your name–particularly a pretty easy European name–wrong and you correct them. For a while, whenever someone asked if I had a preference between being called “Michael” and “Mike,” I’d say I preferred to be called Michael, which is true. But I’ve got some friends who care about other people’s feelings WAAAAY too much and would, like, go out of their way apologize and shit if they called me Mike, or they’d been calling me Mike for years and were like “I can’t believe you didn’t say anything before!” and I’d always respond with some form of: “It’s because I don’t care all that much!” Like, I’ve got a preference among types of French fries, but I’m not going to pitch a fit if I get curly fries instead of shoestring fries, you know? It’s fries. Nowadays I don’t say anything–you can call me Giancarlo for all I care–because it’s not a strong enough preference to be worth making a stink about.
But Williams let people get his name out-and-out wrong for TWO YEARS, and at some point you’ve reached the point of no return. I think you’re entitled to correct people if they get your name wrong, anyone, at any time, because it’s your name, for chrissake, your identity, and people ought to call you what you like to be called. At the same time, I totally get being a rookie on your first day in the clubhouse and not wanting to correct the pitching coach in front of everyone. But at some point, like, after a couple days, you talk to him privately and tell him he’s getting your name wrong, right? Because if you bring that up after two years, everyone’s going to think you’re weird for not having spoken up earlier and then it’s a thing. Anyway, I’d love to know what that line is. /END DIGRESSION.)
He keeps moving on because “five or six innings without killing you” is pretty much his ceiling, and most teams figure they can spend the fifth rotation spot either on an up-and-coming youngster or a reclamation project or some form of pitcher with more than replacement-level upside. Williams doesn’t have that.
That said, he–to borrow a phrase from Kansas City Royals minor leaguer Brandon Downes–“pitched his bag off” for the Phillies last year. The Phillies were Williams’ third major league stop in 2014, after Houston and Texas, and he had a 2.83 ERA in 57 1/3 innings. That’s almost certainly small sample size noise, as his 6.0 K/9 in the time makes me glad I spent five years writing about Kyle Kendrick, because that means we’ve already gone over why right-handed pitchers in particular need to strike a lot of guys to stick in a major league rotation.
But coming in as a midseason acquisition for a team in pitching straits as dire as the Phillies’ is different from getting a major league contract worth at least $2.5 million. When he signed this contract, there was some great wailing and gnashing of teeth, which makes less and less sense the more you look at the Phillies’ rotation. This is where I want to go back to Bill’s transaction analysis.
I think he and I agree broadly on what Williams is, and that he’ll regress, but Bill focused more on Williams’ performance than his value to the Phillies, and that’s where I’d like to at least add something to the analysis, because while Williams is probably replacement-level, more or less, being replacement-level has value, particularly at starting pitcher, particularly to the Phillies now.
Let’s assume that, if he’s given a guaranteed rotation spot, Williams will throw between 140 and 180 innings with an ERA+ between 80 and 95. For comparison, these are the pitchers who have had a season that meets those criteria in the past two seasons.
Okay, now let’s play a game: How many pitchers do the Phillies have who you know can throw that many innings, at that quality or better, who will be 1) healthy and 2) major league-ready for Opening Day?
One. You need at least four more…well, practically, you need about seven or eight starting pitchers to make it all the way through a season, but you need at least four more to make it to Opening Day.
Kyle Kendrick is set to leave as a free agent. A.J. Burnett might retire, or he might not. Cliff Lee might have successfully rehabbed an elbow injury at age 36 without surgery, but we really ought to know better than to count on that. David Buchanan isn’t any better than Williams, either in performance or peripherals, and lacks his track record. Aaron Nola could come into spring training and grab a rotation spot, or he might need to spend some or all of 2015 in the minors before he’s ready. Ditto Jesse Biddle, whose 2014 fell apart after he suffered a brain injury after being hit with a hailstone–and really, if you need any other sign that the Phillies aren’t getting the breaks anymore, it’s that they lost their top pitching prospect to a hailstone, of all things. Former top-100 prospect Adam Morgan is still coming back from a shoulder injury, and could slot into the midrotation nicely, or he could never pitch in the majors ever.
Let’s say the best-case scenario, or something close to it happens. Hamels is Hamels, Nola is ready, and Lee, Biddle, and Morgan are all healthy and effective. In that case, I’d appreciate if whoever is traipsing across the galaxy in the starship Heart of Gold would send me a postcard or something. And if that happens, the Phillies will be happy to flush the $2.5 million they spent on Williams down the oubliette, because they’ll be too busy prepping Citizens Bank Park for the playoffs to care. It could happen.
But you don’t get to be a major league GM by counting on the best-case scenario, and at $2.5 million, which, in a grotesque manifestation of the robber-baron economics of American sports, is chump change for even a losing baseball team, Williams is an insurance policy worth having.
This is where the theoretical construct of the replacement-level player gets us in trouble, because while, for the purposes of player evaluation, we assume you could get a player of near Williams’ quality off the street for the major league minimum when that’s not always the case. If the Phillies had a reservoir of Tommy Milones at AAA, they wouldn’t have needed Williams in the first place, and odds are they’re going to need at least one more anyway. What lies in the Phillies’ high minors and the free agent pool, except in the most optimistic scenario, isn’t much better than Williams, and often comes with an injury or performance risk Williams doesn’t represent.
It really comes down to this: The Phillies are buying cheap innings in bulk the way you might buy sand in bulk if you’re trying to put out an industrial chemical fire. In an ideal world, you’d want something more efficient or elegant to put out the fire, but right now, before you know exactly what kind of problem you’re dealing with, you want something you know will get the fire under control. He’s not flashy or exciting, but he’ll give you as many innings as you want without causing a fuss, and that’s precisely what the Phillies need right now.